Mars in the Arctic

A unique construction project finally overcame delays and disaster last week to take shape in the Arctic. It looks more or less like an oil tank, but in fact it’s a model of the kind of habitat humans may one day live in when they visit Mars.

The two-story fiberglass structure is the brainchild of The Mars Society, a private, not-for-profit organization whose goal is to encourage the exploration and settlement of Mars. And it’s on Devon Island, Nunavut, for the simple reason that that remote, treeless island–part of the Queen Elizabeth Islands grouped between Baffin Bay and the Arctic Ocean–is about as close as Earth has to offer to a Martian environment.

Although the habitat isn’t a NASA project, NASA is nearby; the U.S. space agency, for the fourth summer in a row, is conducting its own Mars-related experiments on Devon Island.

What makes Devon Island Mars-like is the rocky terrain, extreme climate and, especially, a massive meteorite impact crater. The Houghton Crater, 20 kilometres in diameter, was formed 23 million years ago. It has eroded remarkably little in that time, thanks to the dry, cold climate, and as a result, many of the geological features surrounding it are very similar to features photographed near Martian craters by various spacecraft.

The Mars Society’s habitat isn’t the kind of technologically sophisticated structure that would have to be placed on Mars. It’s more of a glorified Quonset Hut, with only minimal electrical power and no indoor plumbing. But the society hopes it will just be the first of many habitats that will be built over the next few years. The goal isn’t to model the technology necessary to keep people alive on Mars, but to learn how to operate efficiently on Mars–how to coordinate the people, robots, vehicles and mission control centers that would be part of a Mars base.

One problem the Mars Society faced right off the bat was the loss of a lot of their equipment, which was parachuted onto the island. One of the shipments was destroyed in the process, and as a result, they had to improvise, using a jury-rigged trailer, wood flown in from the nearest airport and a lot of volunteer brute force. They lost a week off their schedule, and they’d only planned to crew the habitat for two weeks (next year they hope to inhabit it for two months) but nonetheless they’ve begun staffing the habitat with a rotating crew of six.

Meanwhile, not too far away, NASA’s research team is living in tents, conducting its own Mars-related research. The two teams will work together on some projects and separately on others.

Among other things, the scientists are studying the environments, biology and DNA of microbes found in lakes near the Houghton Crater, in particular deinococcus radiodurans. This bacterium is able to withstand hundreds of times the level of radiation that would kill most other organisms, and is also resistant to extreme heat, extreme cold, and other stresses. Life on Mars would need similar abilities. Scientists are also interested in organisms found on Devon Island that can apparently produce their own ultraviolet shields.

One device being used to study microbes is a prototype lightweight portable DNA reader. It may someday allow scientists on Mars to sequence the DNA of any life forms they might find from a simple soil sample. Other technology being tested includes a new spacesuit designed for use on Mars and a new type of spacesuit glove.

Good communications will be vital to any Mars mission. NASA is testing a tethered blimp, attached to an ATV, as an aerial platform for photography and communications. And in one of the simplest tests, for three weeks all communications with mission control in Houston will be time-delayed by several minutes, to mimic the time it takes signals to travel from Mars to Earth and back again.

Similarly, the scientists in the habitat will conduct exercises in which they will have to pause in a mock airlock for several minutes before venturing outside, and follow NASA-style checklists as they work.

In the future, the habitat may be expanded to include a greenhouse and rover port. Other habitats may be built in other locations in the Arctic, in Iceland, in Australia and in the American Southwest.

The goal is to test “a new architecture for a new planet,” so that, in 15 or 20 years, when we do go to Mars, we’ll be ready. Until then, northern Canada is about as close as we can get.

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